A Look Back in History: Early Folk Religion of the PA Dutch

A typical ritual layout of a Braucher where powers used to heal in the art of “white magic” are derived from God (the Holy Trinity). The Pennsylvania Dutch have not hesitated to use Braucherei in the healing of their sick and afflicted.
A typical ritual layout of a Braucher where powers used to heal in the art of “white magic” are derived from God (the Holy Trinity). The Pennsylvania Dutch have not hesitated to use Braucherei in the healing of their sick and afflicted. Submitted photo

To the outside world of Auslanders (outsiders) of the “PA Dutch Country,” and even to some within the Pennsylvania Dutch folk culture through its descended community, the practice of Powwowing is often confused with Hexerei. As in most of Western civilization, there has long existed and still exist among the Germanic Dutch people a belief in white and black magic.

The art of White magic in the Dutch Country is referred to as Braucherei or popularly, as Powwowing. Hexerei, of course, is the art of black magic. Powers used to heal in the art of Braucherei are derived from God (the Holy Trinity), but the powers employed in Hexerei are derived from the Devil, in the simplest of explanation. Therefore, one who engages in this sort of magic has bartered or “sold his soul to the Devil,” and destined for Hell, so practitioners beware!

For nearly three centuries, the Pennsylvania Dutch have not hesitated to use Braucherei in the healing of their sick and afflicted, and regionally, our culture has canonized early 19th Century faith healer, Mountain Mary (of the Oley Hills), as a Saint for her powers of healing. But we will get more into her remarkable story later and of a contemporary to her, John George Hohman, who published numerous early 19th Century books on the matter. Their form of faith healing has many counterparts in our civilization, however, the subset of Hexerei, witchcraft, or black magic was always considered of utmost evil here in the region; and only desperate people, and those with devious intentions, have resorted to its equally powerful and secret powers.

Yet even earlier than the widespread use of Braucherei and Hexerei in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, among the old-time traditions of our PA Dutch people, are their 18th Century Broadside amulets that have been handed down since Colonial times. They had evolved into iconic good luck charms among devout Christian families who lived in southeastern Pennsylvania and included French Huguenot pioneers, also grouped as Pennsylvania Dutch, but some who lived in New York State with the Holland Dutch, a distantly different group/heritage (I will elaborate shortly). Always written in the German PA Dutch Dialect, these Himmelsbriefs published in German were amulets of religious folk beliefs and were a reminder of native Christian folklife that they protected each family from evil, house fire, and unfortunate health hazards, while members practiced a Christian lifestyle.

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“Pennsylvania Dutch” is the original term used by William Penn’s English Colonists to describe these immigrants from Rhineland Germany, and refers to this Rhenish German civilization of native Palatines covered throughout the book. This “cultural group” includes not just Germans, but French Huguenots, Swiss Amish and Mennonites, Holland Dutch Mennonites, and Moravians, as well. Collectively, these people lived amongst each other, shared in a German language together, and in arriving to America in large waves from the same geographic region; they sought farms in Pennsylvania (Penn’s Woods) and nearly outnumbered William Penn’s English immigrants.

This early American cultural melting pot, occurring in southeastern Pennsylvania, included these naturalized Rhineland citizens who swore allegiance to the United States, but also assimilated with English laws and standards. However, with everyday work habits and living customs (folk religion included), they followed in their native Rhineland fashion and continued their unique German dialect in America that soon became known as “Pennsylvania Dutch,” rather than formal High German. “Pennsylvania Dutch,” as a Colonial English-created colloquialism, was a more precise Americanism, indicating a broader group of individuals from Europe’s Rhine Valley with pre-Revolutionary roots than say, “Pennsylvania Germans” or “German-Americans.” Many scholars interchange the terms: Pennsylvania Dutch with Pennsylvania Germans, and some use the latter exclusively, however, neither is the preference of the author.